On the Road in Utah’s Winter Wonderland
If you hear ‘winter road trip’ what comes to mind?
Are you thinking anxiety-producing road conditions, a bleak landscape out your window, and an arrival somewhere chilly and lackluster?
Think again. If you haven’t already clued into the appeal of winter road trips, it’s time to get wise. But as always, location, location, location. So fly south, snowbirds, to the roads of Southern Utah.
Picture moving at your own pace from one breathtaking red rock landscape to another, with an unbelievable array of activities to choose from. Imagine going for a morning snowshoe in a stunning winter wonderland all to yourself, bathing in a geothermal canyon at midday, and then having dinner in a lively, charming mountain village at night.
Utah’s license plates boast the “Greatest Snow on Earth ®”. Sounds like hyperbole. but according to research by a University of Utah atmospheric scientist, the combination of climate conditions that brew over the Wasatch Mountain resorts creates a powder snow beyond any other. Whether science or magic, the snow in Utah, its majestic red landscape, and the endless possible stops along the way make for an incredible winter road trip.
Here are some ideas just to get you started.
Travelling with all Ages
Park City is just over half an hour away from Salt Lake City airport and by all accounts is a perfect winter getaway, whether you are travelling as a couple or with kids or grandkids.
Let’s start with the obvious: skiing and snowboarding. There are 455 downhill trails across 9,386 acres and multiple areas to Nordic ski. Not surprisingly, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard team is headquartered in Park City and the 2002 Winter Olympics was held here.
But the enjoyment of snow extends far beyond that. If there’s a form of winter recreation that involves snow or ice, you can find it here. There are hundreds of kilometres of snowshoe-friendly trails, both groomed and ungroomed. Or find your exhilaration by snowmobiling, tubing, ziplining, or winter biking. A traditionalist? Enjoy the tobogganing, dogsledding and sleigh rides.
And when it’s time to take a break from all the snow, the village will keep you more than happily occupied, whether you wish to enjoy some food and drink (apres ski is not just for the skiers), sink into some wellness experiences, browse the stores or explore the silver mining history of the town.
If you’ve had enough of the village buzz, head to Wasatch State Park for some snowshoeing solitude or soak in geothermal hot springs in the incredible Homestead Crater in Midway. Believe it or not, you can even take a paddleboard yoga class or go scuba diving there. If you’re up for more adventure, you could try ice climbing in Provo canyon, something that even beginners can try with the help of local tour guides. Kids in tow? Check out the ice castle in nearby Midway, with its winter wonderland slides, icicle mazes and magical ice caves.
Utah National Parks Trip
You’ve probably seen photos of Utah’s national parks in the height of summer – hikers standing among red rocks saturated by light. Without a doubt summer is beautiful, but winter comes with some undeniable advantages. For one, not everyone knows the secret of Utah parks in the winter so there are far fewer people. As well, you don’t have to contend with intense heat, but it can still be warm enough to hike in a t-shirt in December. If there is snow, charge up your phone or bring your camera: you will want to capture the way it sparkles white against ochre.
Salt Lake City and Las Vegas give you easy access to a number of beautiful national parks in the southern part of the state, all of which are open in the winter. Arches, known for its iconic vaulted red rocks and more than 2000 arch formations has trails, campsites and a visitor centre open all year.
Bryce Canyon has hiking, snowshoeing, and stargazing that will leave you breathless in the best of ways. While not all parts of the park are open during the winter, the renowned Amphitheater is open, and it’s lined with a spectacular number of hoodoo formations (tall, spindles of rock) that are magical when there is surrounding snow.
Zion is one of the most accessible of parks in the winter given its lower elevation. Hikes are fantastic and the surrounding landscape will likely be a highlight of your trip. It’s worth coming early for a sunrise and watching the rock change colour, or if you are a night owl, prepare for unparalleled stargazing – Zion is Utah’s most recent Dark Sky Park to be internationally accredited after all.
Winter road trips that take you through raw nature, like national parks, require some preparation, and awareness of weather and road conditions. But don’t be daunted. It’s easy to find this information (some listed at the end of this article). Trails may have the challenge of snow, ice, or mud so wear proper footwear like boots with ice cleats. But in exchange, you avoid the heat of summer and crowds. You will find yourself in landscapes of red rock that take you far from your everyday life, leaving you with a wonder to savour when you return.
Skiing and Boarding Road Trip
Utah’s snow is legendary and for skiing and boarding enthusiasts, there are so many amazing resorts to sample within driving distance of Salt Lake City that you might want to work them into a road trip. Whatever your ability or preference in a ski or boarding experience, you can find it in 11 of Utah’s 15 ski resorts within an hour’s drive of Salt Lake City.
If you plan on visiting a number of the resorts, you can buy a multi-resort pass.
Alta Ski Area is ski only (sorry snowboarders). But even riders will leave their boards at home for a chance to experience the over 116 runs and amazing powder. The modern ski infrastructure is seeped in old school ski tradition. You will find décor that date back to the early days of skiing.
Brighton Ski Resort is known for its terrain park, night skiing, accessible backcountry, snow accumulation and family discounts.
Snowbird is known for its snow, views and for attracting experts who love steep terrain.
Solitude Mountain Resort is aptly named. It’s not crowded and is the locals’ favourite.
Park City has a number of excellent resorts: Deer Valley, Park City Mountain and Woodward Park City – newly opened in 2019.
Nordic Valley Resort is known for its night skiing, affordability and as a great place for beginners.
Powder Mountain has incredible terrain, leading to uncrowded slopes. You can also find affordable cat skiing here.
Snowbasin has luxe day lodges, fine dining, and Olympic quality downhill runs.
Sundance Resort, built by Robert Redford, is a mix of skiing and art – worth a visit for the non-skiers on the trip.
Keep up with weather conditions and road closures by downloading the UDOT Traffic app.
Consider the Forever Mighty Utah travel ethos. Visitors are invited to travel consciously and minimize impact while maximizing experience through, for instance adherence to the ‘Leave No Trace’ principle and an awareness of local community and heritage.